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I needed to take some time out.
The fast pace of life in Japan had left my mind as cluttered as a student bedsit, a confusion of email addresses, credit card bills and mental to-do lists.
It was a Japanese friend of mine who said they had the perfect answer: head for a traditional Japanese shukubo (temple lodging) where, not only could I relax, but do so while learning the art of zazen (sitting) meditation.
The idea of a spiritual retreat in a remote mountain setting sounded idea. I would, I thought I as I packed, come back rested, refreshed and with a new-found sense of who I am and why I am here.
Nirvana was just a weekend break away.
A few days later found me sweating on the side of mountain outside Kyoto.
From out of the woodland, a shaven-headed monk approached. “You must be looking for Hosen-ji,” he gestured towards a clearing, his long blue robes parting to reveal a bony finger.
His voice sounded calm. Calmer than someone who had just spent the afternoon on Prozac in a flotation tank. “Please,” he breathed, oozing serenity from every pore of his meticulously shaven head, “come this way.”
Hosen-ji is one of hundreds of shukubo dotted around Japan.
It operates an open-door policy to short term residents and a gaijin-friendly attitude to potential converts and the downright curious alike.
They aim to promote Zen and introduce first-timers to the ways of temple life. Some go on to enrol in monasteries. Most, however, simply go back to the rat race feeling better for some time out and having stocked up on food for thought about a higher spiritual purpose to life.
In the past, wannabe monks had to prostrate themselves at the front gate for three days while the resident monks shunned him.
They would then be condemned to trial by solitary meditation for a further two days while temple denizens kept watch to check on their diligence.
Only then would they be invited to join a strict monastic life of five hours sleep per night, a rudimentary vegetarian diet, endless meditation and a shot at the big money prize: enlightenment.
All that is required of today’s Zen master wannabes is a nominal fee to cover board and lodgings and zealous adherence to the temple rules.
It sounds easy but, if you’re a bit of a party animal, then go elsewhere.
The temple grounds are strictly a vice-free zone, your attendance is compulsory for 150 minute of zazen meditation per day and, if you’re not flat out on your futon dreaming of Buddha by lights out at 10pm each night, then the head monk will be asking questions.
The Hosen-ji temple specialises in welcoming the Zen newcomer and, as such, acts a toe in the waters of Buddhism compared to the performing zazen under icy waterfalls as practised by some of the more hard line shukubo.
It also welcomes foreigners, Asians and Japanese nationals in equal measure. The schedule allocates everyone to work around the grounds in the morning on equal terms and guests are encouraged to chat openly rather than obey a strict silence.
Each night at 8pm, there is a 90-minute zazen session. As the new kind on the block, Iku-san, the only English-speaking monk, gave me the crash course as preparation.
Zazen, he explained, dates from the 12th century and came to Japan from China. To achieve enlightenment, one must free the mind, stripping all away all thoughts and distractions so you are numb to outside stimuli.
To me, it sounded a bit like a Celine Dion concert.
“Some people come here to develop their character, others to deal with problems in their personal lives.”
“We had one woman whose fiancee had cancelled the wedding at the last minute, leaving her emotionally distraught. We even have parents dropping off their problem children here like we’re a summer camp,” he explained as we took our positions in the meditation chamber.
Iku-san told me to count my breaths as a means to clear my mind.
The students filed in silently while a monk beat a staccato rhythm on a block of wood and, after a short reading from Buddhist scripture, the peel of small hand bell signalled the start of zazen time.
I closed my eyes and tried to tune into the moment. Unfortunately, I felt like I’d already turned on, tuned in and dropped off before most of the faithful had even finished arranging their feet in contortionist-like positions.
Iku-san had told me that after 25 minutes there would be a five-minute break to stretch aching limbs.
After five minutes, my legs felt numb and painful. After ten, they were ready for amputation, the only distraction coming when, at the 20-minute mark, I had an overwhelming urge to sneeze.
The second session commenced with another ring of the bell and was interrupted after 50 minutes when the Zen master came around with a large wooden stick (the keisaku) to administer voluntary thwacks to anyone finding themselves nodding off during their pursuit for inner peace.
The keisaku ritual is an integral part of zazen. I bowed before the Zen master and presented my shoulder to indicate my state of readiness before accepting two sharp taps.
I bowed again as a gesture of gratitude and promptly returned to my meditative state, my mind freshly focused on the intense stinging in my shoulder blades.
After zazen and with a hour to go to bedtime, I grabbed a few words with my fellow guests.
Kento, a 28-year-old furniture maker from suburban Tokyo, had come out of curiosity and was finding the meditation tough going. “It’s very painful on your legs,” he grimaced, rubbing his shins.
“It’s meant to get easier with practice but, right now, I’m in agony.”
Mai, a 25-year-old office worker from Yokohama had already spent three weeks at Hosen-ji and was considering enrolling in a monastery.
“I came because I wanted to see the real me,” she said as we unpacked the futons for bed. “I feel very peaceful when I meditate but find it hard to empty my mind.”
The next morning’s routine made the previous night seem like a stroll in the park and seriously tested my will.
The routine is fixed: a 5.30am alarm call is followed by sutra chanting and tai chi to warm up for another 60 minutes of zazen. Then there’s sweeping the grounds to be done before breakfast at 8am.
But, far from light relief, I found the meal to be the hardest part of the whole zazen experience.
The shojin-ryori (temple food) consisted of watery rice served and eaten to an exacting set of rituals in agonising silence with monks and guests sat in pairs along a huge low table.
Of course, being the new boy, I had to sit bang opposite the head monk who spend the entire meal glowering disapprovingly as I slowly turned a delicate hue of puce trying to find a suitable furtive moment to release some vegetarian Buddhist diet-fuelled gas.
And, when I came to stand up, my legs had gone completely gone so I stumbled and fell while trying to clear the plates. The monks were clearly not amused.
The intense ritual of breakfast had started to make this whole trip feel like a weekend at Buddhist boot camp.
Iku-san, clearly sensing my frustration (how very Zen of him), took me aside and said calmly:
“Today you did everything wrong but that’s the best day to do it.”
I sat there in the kitchen having a Zen moment and pondering his words. Was this one of those famous riddles that Zen practitioners like to deliberate to help ease themselves under the soapy waters of zazen?
By the second day I started to grow more accustomed to the rituals.
I don’t think I ever really succeeded in clearing my mind of the detritus of daily life but I did stop fighting my cynical urges and just went with the flow of temple life and all its Zen-inspired quirks.
On my last morning, Klaus, a Zen student from Germany who was racking up the sixth month of his current stay, gave me a Zen pep talk.
“There’s a Japanese saying,” he informed me sagely after breakfast.
‘You have to be reborn 8,000 times to achieve enlightenment.’
“People think of meditation as something mystic but, in reality, it’s highly pragmatic. It’s not a religion. It’s simply about seeing your true self. If you practice at home for just 15 minutes a day, you too could learn,” he smiled.
Walking back to the station in the mid-morning sunshine, my mind was cluttered.
I had emails to send, credit card bills to pay and a big mental to-do sticky that said, “Buy extra-large cafe latte and chocolate croissant upon arrival at Kyoto station.”
To be honest, I don’t think I’m cut out for a life as a Zen master. But, as I watched the Japanese salarymen dashing for the subway from a station cafe, I did feel a sense of wellbeing.
Maybe it was the caffeine. Maybe the huge steak I was planning for dinner. Or maybe I’d seen the real me and decided, with minor plastic surgery and a decent personal trainer, I didn’t look too bad after all.
It was my own private nirvana. And it felt pretty good.
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This article was first published in The Guardian in March 2002.
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